(first posted 10/9/2015) Twentieth century Britain has produced some wonderful buildings by some great architects, who by the nature of their trade, have their names appended to a wide range of buildings, locations and dates. One of the best known of these was Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, who designed among other buildings, the Anglican Cathedral of Liverpool, Battersea Power Station and Waterloo Bridge in London – all great buildings with local and national recognition – but he is perhaps best associated with the definitive British red telephone box, known officially as the K6.
K6 stands for Kiosk, type 6, and it was commissioned by the General Post Office (GPO) in 1935. Britain had had a centralised and unified telephone system since 1912, when the last of independent companies was amalgamated into the GPO. The only areas outside this were the Channel Island sof Jersey and Guernsey, and the city of Kingston upon Hull (better known as Hull) which remained with their own municipal organisations.
The first standardised kiosk,known as the K1, was built in 1921 but take up was slow, partly due to expense, and partly due a perception of a lack of demand.
The GPO responded in 1922 by asking Gilbert Scott to design a replacement standard kiosk. This was a quite an innovative approach at the time, rather like asking, say, Norman Foster now, compared with relying on the in-house skills of the Post Office.
Gilbert Scott rose to the challenge and responded magnificently by designing the K2 kiosk. Visually, this looks similar to the famous K6; it’s a bit like looking at a BMW 5 series and then at a 3 series, although they have a different window pattern.
Around 1500 K2 kiosks were produced and it was used only in London; it was built of cast iron and weighed in at about a ton.
Outside London, the Post Office used Gilbert Scott’s K3 kiosk, visually similar but built in concrete and painted cream with red frames on the glazing. There were issues with the K3, notably ease of transport and erection without damage to the relatively brittle concrete, and weathering. Very few survive, and those that do are officially classified as listed buildings, which directs that they be preserved and limits what may done to them.
In 1935, King George V celebrated his silver jubilee, and the Post Office commissioned Gilbert Scott to design another new kiosk to mark the anniversary, and planned that it be used nationwide, to be Britain’s national telephone kiosk.
Gilbert Scott again met the challenge, and the timeless K6 kiosk was born. The material chosen reverted to cast iron, and the kiosk was built in sections, bolted together and set on a concrete base. The door was made of teak, and was painted to match the cast iron and had the same window pattern. Alomst always, the box was red with a balck band at the base to match the GPO’s mail boxes, though in some areas black and grey were used and in some remote rural areas green was also used. Gilbert Scott disapproved of the red, preferring silver for urban areas and dove grey in rural aras.
This glazing pattern, on three sides only obviously, is something that I suggest identifies the K6 as being a piece of work from a leading practitioner at the height of his trade. The layout was not the simple six panes by three seen on the earlier kiosks but the distinctive eight rows of three panes (almost always perspex, not glass, for obvious reasons), with a larger central pane, in an almost art-deco way. Simple, but effective at creating a design that was stylish, modern and timeless with a suggestion of formality and permanence.
The Post Office installed a total of over 60,000 right across Britain, from 1935 to the late 1960s, and even now around 11,000 remain in service, if not in much use. As the chosen kiosk from the monopoly provider, it was the only type built for over thirty years. By the 1940s, every British village will have had one (at least) and many others were found in seemingly unusual and unexpected places as well. Truly, this has become an icon of Britain.
In the 1960s, there was an attempt to update the design, with a kiosk known as the K8. If you consider the Routemaster with its distinctive appearance as the definitive London double decker, then the K8 is the equivalent of the rather faceless rear engine buses that were expected to replace it. Maybe, it even shares some of their styling cues. But the rear engined buses didn’t replace the Routemaster as the bus understood from the statement “red London bus” and the K8 isn’t recognised as a “British phone box” either.
The phones inside the kiosks changed, from coin operated equipment using shillings, sixpences, and pennies, to phones accepting the 1971 decimal currency and, of course, later phone cards and debit cards. But the principle always remained – available to all for a standard rate. And everyone will remember at least one call from a phone box to someone special.
Like a red car, the red paint on the kiosk fades over time, and periodic maintenance and repair is a definite issue. Inevitably, with the growth of domestic phone ownership in the 1950s and now the almost universal ownership of mobile (cellular) phones, the number of public phones has dropped, and many K6 kiosks have been removed for scrap.
Usgae has dropped by 80% in five years and last year, another 1500 were decommsioned, although local authorty approval is required to remove one unless there is another within 400 metres, even if it is one of the many thousands in rural locations that get used only once a month. Some have re-appeared, as phone boxes or garden ornaments and everything in between, just about everywhere in the world. The GPO is no longer with us though – the phone network was separated in the 1970s and sold off by the Govrnment in 1984 as British Telecomunications plc (now known as BT) in 1984.
Around 20% of the 11,000 remaining K6 kiosks have been designated as having listed building status, which directs that they cannot be removed or substantially changed.
Many communities are finding alternative uses for them, from information kisoks to a storage area for a defribulator. In my area, there is a trend for putting some shelves in them and creating a free to all community library. Leave your unwanted books there, and borrow one left by another. Read, return and repeat.
Neat, and better than being abandoned. One was even converted to a very small, one night only pub, named the Dog and Bone, which, if you know Cockney rhyming slang, is phone.
And Gilbert Scott – like many architects his name is attached to a wide range of buildings, ranging from the K6 kiosk to the rebuilding of the House of Commons chamber in the Palace of Westminster after World War 2; perhaps the two buildings which most represent Britain to the world.